by Kris Katz
Brief spoiler-free entertainment reviews

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Avatar (2009)

In the simplest possible terms, this movie features one of the most lush, vibrant, and fascinating worlds ever put to film. It's stunning and staggering and warm and real. When credits roll, you feel like you just spent a week in the weird and wonderful. For all the bombast and budget the film has gone through to make it to the screen, this is a movie that delivers that elusive true magic of actual escapism. The story, after that fact, is almost irrelevant. And yet even this tale of man coming to grips with nature, predictable and trite though it may be, manages to always seem engaging and fun. It's an action-adventure film in the classic sense, with broadly painted villains and even broader heroes, brought together with incredible confidence. The story itself may not be much to praise, but the execution, the beauty, and the pure thrilling awe of this sci-fi fable make it something altogether remarkable.

9 out of 10.

Note: If the option exists, no matter how difficult it may be, this film must be seen in 3D. It is not a gimmick like it is in every other film, it becomes a part of the story, and turns this incredible world into one you can actually touch. It is still a great movie regardless, but it would lose a key feature in its presentation.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Children of Men (2006)

There's a point late in the film where, amidst incredible chaos and death and racism and persecution, the main character is given the slightest and simplest of favors. It's in this moment that you realize how perfectly realized, and utterly depressing, the world in the film is. Depicting a future where humanity has gone infertile, and not a single child has been born worldwide in eighteen years, the movie shows the sorry state of Britain as civilization slowly self-cannibalizes. It is very good at it. Every inch of the film is filled with a sense of decay, of society struggling with its own mortality. We soldier on, but tragically question why. It is all laid down with an incredible eye for detail, down to the most minute tweak, and framed with some truly noteworthy camera work. So it is a shame that a movie which expertly paints one of the most thorough swan songs for our species does such a poor job in developing its characters. Everyone involved puts in excellent work on camera, but the script is clearly focused on the bigger picture. You care little for what the characters are going through, but instead care deeply, desperately for the state of the film's world. The result is devastating regardless.

9 out of 10.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Inglorious Basterds (2009)

Quentin Tarrantino has a knack for pushing the progress of cinema backwards a few decades. With every film, he embraces the roots of today’s movies, creating a gleefully anachronistic throwback. Inglorious Basterds is his (intentionally misspelled) salute to the World War II movies of yore, embracing both the gung-ho camp and intricate conspiracies of that era. Seeing Brad Pitt strut around as a sadistic Nazi-hunter leading a band of angry Jews is delightful, gruesome fun, but the film’s heart and much of its plot belong to a revenge tale waiting in the wings. It makes for an awkward, though terribly interesting trip through Nazi-occupied France, with cheesy enthusiasm intercut with a deadly serious story of justice. Tarrantino’s ever-present talent for dialogue is at full strength as well, with brilliantly meandering conversations framing every move the story makes; it's especially interesting considering the vast majority of the film is in either French or German. As a whole, it is exactly what it sets out to be—the kind of film they just don’t make anymore, delivered with love from one of the best talents in the business.

8 out of 10.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Ponyo (2008)

Also known as Gake no ue no Ponyo.
Once again, legendary director Hayao Miyazaki shows us what's possible with animated films. Pitched similarly to the classic My Neighbor Totoro, Ponyo is a tale perfect for children, and a solid dose of enchantment for the inner child as well. The story is a familiar one, as it is based on the same book as Disney's classic The Little Mermaid. Miyazaki's take on the “fish-person wants to be human” story is significantly different however, even if the central conceit is the same. It's not a musical for one, and the entire production has a danger-less, carefree feel. The palette is full of warm blues and friendly yellows coloring characters that simply accept the situation in front of them with little question, and tied with a brisk pace that helps the whole thing go down easy, if ultimately inconsequential. It is pure escapism, crafted with a sure hand and obsessive eye for detail. Every moment of the film appears hand drawn, with Miyazaki's aversion to computer generated imagery in full swing. There may not be a single computer animated frame in the entire film—a true rarity in this age—and the result is a visual masterpiece. Even so, the story and childish tone may be a hard sell for demanding adults. If you have a playful inner child who can enjoy lush scenery with pretty colors and adorable creatures, you will definitely finish this with a smile.

8 out of 10.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Howl's Moving Castle (2004)

Also known as Hauru no ugoku shiro.
Seeing something completely, utterly new and unique in a movie is a rare thing. It's also Hayao Miyazaki's stock and trade. This tale of warring wizards and a young woman cursed into old age is so inventive, so eye-popping and fresh that there's hardly any room left for a coherent story. Make no mistake, at every turn and in every scene there is a new kind of magic or spell being cast that results in a careening trip through a dazzling array of color and lights, beautiful hand drawn landscapes, or a perfectly animated transformation effortless in its character and subtleties. There is genuine enchantment to be had. But the story itself suffers for it, with large leaps in character logic and a world absolutely begging for further explanation yet receiving almost none. It creates an interesting yearning, an expectation that all the answers the movie expertly baits you into anticipating lie just around the corner. In that way it's a mildly frustrating film, but while it may less of a Miyazaki masterpiece than its peers, this is still filled with that trademark wonder, and near perfect beauty.

7 out of 10.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

District 9 (2009)

Based on, and expanded from, the excellent short film Alive in Joburg, first-time feature director Neill Blomkamp soundly proves himself with one of the freshest, most thought-provoking science fiction films in years. The film depicts the plight a semi-intelligent, insect-like alien race stuck on Earth, segregated from the human population by the government, and forced to live in a ghetto. It works as an obvious parable to apartheid but the movie plays it smart, never issuing a heavy hand or an unwanted message. Instead you get a deeply fascinating look at a situation quickly spiraling out of control, seen through the eyes of a dopey, pencil-pushing bureaucrat who gets unwittingly snatched into the worst of it and intercut the retrospective of a documentary film chronicling the events. The result is a gritty, dark, often unsettling, but intensely interesting sci-fi drama thriller that asks nothing but difficult questions, all the while wowing with impressive effects. It has a few rookie mistakes in the presentation, but in almost every way this is one of the best films of its genre in almost a decade.

9 out of 10. (what else would I give it?)

Friday, August 7, 2009

Terminator (1984)

Some classics don't age entirely well. Despite being the star-maker for The Governator himself, this is a film with some exceptional qualities held back by production that may have been trendy and cutting edge at the time, but today seems quaint at best. Set as a story of a cyborg assassin sent back in time to kill the mother of a future leader, the tale told is barely enough to fill a short story, yet the film plays this to its advantage by filling with lots of action and a few great character moments. The action scenes themselves are very well done, showing off a young James Cameron's aptitude for exceptional staging, but it's the moments of suspense that really stand out; the relentless finale especially is a heart-pounding chase of incredible intensity. What ultimately holds the film back, however, are the trappings of the era in which it was made. While the teased hair and garish neon culture of the early 80s can be forgiven as set dressing, it becomes increasingly difficult to overlook the sound mixing and film score, which frequently undercuts some of the best scenes. It's a damn shame too, as a little more longevity in this area would push this great film into the same league as its legendary sequel. For now it's a good film with some dated key elements—fun to watch, and exciting, but flawed.

7 out of 10.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)

James Cameron has a knack for sequels. After turning the Aliens franchise from horror legend to action masterpiece, he returns to followup on his original film about a coming war between humans and machines. This time two robots are sent back in time both sent to deal with the future leader of the resistance. What plays out is a whip-smart action movie with incredible stunts and big explosions, yet more character and soul than most Oscar-bait. It is a remarkable movie, deftly bouncing between exceptional suspense and mega-budget effects, to thoughtful musings on the human condition, parenting, destiny, and the burdens of leadership. Arnold Schwarzenegger returns to his career-making role of the T-101 model terminator, almost perfectly finding balance between his trademark coldhearted stare and making him just human enough to be relatable. Linda Hamilton also does incredible work as the strong, though deeply troubled, Sarah Connor. The remaining cast does exceptionally well across the board. Once in a long while you get a film that comes along with everything: intelligent characters, quotable lines, iconic action, and a solid set of messages. There aren't really any areas to knock this film; it's about as good as this genre gets.

10 out of 10.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)

From a plot point of view, there really isn't much wrong with the film considering what was left to work with after the second: more robots are sent back in time, but now they are preparing for the coming nuclear holocaust as best they can for their side, rather than trying to prevent or ensure it. The problems with the film mostly lie in how it is presented and, often, scripted. A series begins to lose its impact when it starts to rely on sly, winking references to the previous films, and the first half-hour is largely one obnoxious sight gag after another. Similarly, the casting is all over the place. Arnold does due diligence to the role he made a movie icon, and Kristanna Loken does well as yet another new model of terminator. However Nick Stahl is a bit limp as future resistance leader John Connor, and Claire Danes, a fairly accomplished actress with considerable talent, is completely miscast. Still, there are a few highlights, including an obscenely destructive car chase, and an ending that remains remarkably effective. As a whole, the movie is competent, but just barely. There is nearly none of the sharp intelligence or pure suspense of the previous entries, but things still explode nicely and the plot still chugs along.

6 out of 10.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Funny People (2009)

One thing is for sure: you get your money's worth out of this one. Writer/director Judd Apatow has an exceptional talent for making honest comedies with a lot of heart, and more brains than is easy to give them credit for. Here the mind behind Knocked Up and 40-Year-Old Virgin introduces us to Adam Sandler playing a version of himself diagnosed fatally ill, lonely and depressed in his rich lifestyle, befriending an amateur stand-up comic. It's always an interesting experiment when someone takes a chance on Adam Sandler; he's known more for his incredibly juvenile and annoying characters, but just like with 2002's Punch-Drunk Love he proves quite capable of dramatic heavy lifting. What makes the film difficult, then, is how it is distinctly two films rolled into one. In the first half it's an effusive and hilariously foul musing on death and regret, while the distinctly different second half goes off into far more standard comic fare. Both halves are very well handled, but in the jump from one side to the other the story loses some traction and balance. Also the movie doesn't so much end as stop. The whole of it is still very satisfying tale, often laugh-out-loud funny and frequently quite touching. Its later uncertainty is easily forgiven for its early strength, its flaws deftly paved over by its surprisingly big heart. Two films in one, both of which are very good.

8 out of 10.

Friday, July 31, 2009

(500) Days of Summer (2009)

At the start the narrator sets out to assure the audience that while this is a story of boy meets girl, it is not a love story. Instead, it is a complicated tale of a relationship too perfect to last, examining how it came to be, as well as the gruesome trainwreck it becomes. A lot of clever tricks are used to show this, the most primary of which is its nonlinear structure, flipping back and forth between the up and coming relationship, and the aftermath in equal measure. The script itself is wonderfully solid with many very funny moments, however this is as much a drama as anything else, and it's here that the cast and writing really shine. Zooey Deschanel is absolutely perfect as the titular Summer, managing to seem impossible and charming and appropriately maddening. That said, this is really Joseph Gordon-Levitt's movie and he completely owns it. For an actor who has never really hit the mainstream, he gives what may be the performance of his career as the aloof and idealistic Tom, providing the character's gradual breakdown an extremely impressive weight. It adds up to an exceptional commentary on the state of love and relationships today, and a beautifully heartbreaking trip for the audience.

9 out of 10.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Hurt Locker (2009)

About as taut a thriller as you could ask for, what The Hurt Locker may lack in depth of story it more than makes up for in pure filmcraft. Set in 2004 in Baghdad, the tale follows a trio of army bomb disposal specialists as they perform their incredibly high-risk daily duties. Every time they leave base, the tension becomes immediately palpable. The action and events are orchestrated with an excellent eye for the unexpected, keeping the viewer keenly aware of the ridiculous number of variables in play. It becomes relentless, as each mission wears the crew down along with the audience. The admittedly stereotypical trio is well fleshed out, while the screenplay avoids any attempt to portray the war in Iraq as anything but a tremendously difficult situation for all involved. Ultimately it's the ease with which the movie creates its incredible, visceral suspense that makes it a winner, with supporting details just deep enough to make it feel like it means something. It's shallow, but damn smart.

8 out of 10.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

You can tell a franchise has gone on long enough when you start to see the quality cycles in which it runs. James Bond fans will know what I'm talking about. Here is a series that began with a halfhearted nudge out of the gate, picked up speed by the third film, and was at a full-on gallop by the fifth. Someone must have hidden some Ritalin into everyone's morning coffee for this outing. Unlike the better entries, Year Six at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry feels lethargic and drowsy. It lacks the excitement and surprise and fascination with itself that made the third through the fifth movies so engaging and charming. This one feels detached, with acres of dead space between the characters and the events, sparse highlights of barely conveyed emotion, and moments of action that feel designed to distract the audience from nap time rather than contribute to the story. You could argue that maybe there's too much story to tell in this, yet the previous film did a fantastic job in the telling and the source for this is almost a third shorter. Whether or not the magic is gone, it seems to have skipped over this entry.

4 out of 10.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Spirited Away (2001)

Also known as Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi.
One of my favorite scenes in all of cinema occurs late in this film—it's a quiet character moment on a train as the scenery passes by on a waterlogged horizon. Joe Hisaishi's excellent score slows to little more than a somber piano, and an attentive viewer is given a chance to breathe a bit, take in the entirety of the story to that point. Much of this tale of a girl lost in a world of strange spirits is filled with such verve and energy that for it to press on the brakes and weave this piece into the palette brings the magical absurdity of the story a sense of weight. A lot of strange things happen in this movie, but like all Miyazaki's films there is a patience in the telling, a casual lack of urgency. It doesn't need to shove you through one moment in its eagerness to get to the next weird thing, but relishes in the detail and the world. There are weaknesses however. As wonderfully bizarre as the events onscreen can be, there are barely any moments to flesh out the world in which they inhabit. And much of the ending feels like an attempt to solve a riddle that was never asked in the first place. But there is truth and beauty in this coming of age tale, and though it may have a few cracks on the surface it is no less touching or satisfying.

9 out of 10.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Every series deserves to have a bright, blinding high point; that moment or segment where even the most over-wrought morass of fiction has a chance to shine and be celebrated. The Wrath of Khan is just that. The story is kept simple and accessible: a man bearing a decades-long grudge against a now-retired starship captain escapes exile to exact his revenge. Very little of the series' signature baggage comes along for the ride in any prominent way. Instead we are presented with a streamlined narrative, solid and compelling characters, and an excellent cat-and-mouse game played between the two leads. There's even a substantial amount of risk taken with some key players, and a simply exceptional final showdown. Sure, some of the staple characters are underutilized, and there are certainly moments of very questionable acting, but for the popcorn-munching fun and adventure of it, this is a film that fans and non-fans can both enjoy equally.

9 out of 10.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Brüno (2009)

Sacha Baron Cohen is easily one of the bravest performers in entertainment. He creates these incredibly convincing characters, says outrageously offensive things to large groups of people, and does it all without even so much of a wink to let the others on. Much like Borat before it, this outing sees Cohen speaking to senators, celebrities and random passerby, prodding then with wildly inappropriate questions and situations, and smartly skewering them to their face. It's cringeworthy stuff, but still remains impressively daring given the reactions he gets, and the people he talks to. The problems with this film, however, have a lot to do with the success of Borat, the most basic of which is that the character of Bruno is not nearly as likeable or endearing. Where Borat was naïve and shy, Bruno is arrogant and outlandish. At the same time it seems that more people were in on the joke this time, leading to more segments feeling either staged or at the very least insincere. The greater emphasis on trying to tell a story doesn't help things either. There are still specks of brilliance scattered throughout, but on the whole this just doesn't have the same caustic chemistry that the first had. Taken in full it's still funny, but not hilarious.

6 out of 10.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Evil Dead (1981)

You can just tell watching this film that the director was destined for bigger things. To be able to take so very little and, through the use of some extremely clever camera work and expert sound design, make something so near to a horror masterpiece is just incredible. At some point between the margarita toast and someone having their head lopped off with a shovel, this tale of teenagers in a haunted house goes from grinning B-movie cheese to legitimate horror with such ease and such simple grace that there's little to do but sit back and enjoy the gory spectacle. In many ways it's a perfect party movie; the silly and outdated stupidity is up front and ready for commentary, but just when the crowd runs out of things to say it's suddenly a legitimately scary movie. The origins, the movies that built the careers of both writer-director Sam Raimi, and B-movie staple Bruce Campbell, definitely stand the test of time.

8 out of 10.

Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (1987)

Calling this a sequel is horribly misleading. Though it technically picks up with the final camera shot of the first film, the greater majority of this so-called follow-up contains scene after scene lifted and repurposed from the first. And you can't rely on the earlier movie for a bit of a leg up, either. All but the most basic premise of the first is immediately jettisoned by a heavily altered retelling of the plot so far. However all these transgressions are quickly forgiven when, out of the ashes of a horror classic, a terrific horror-comedy creeps its way out of hiding. It's still the same cabin in the woods and the same demonic ghost possessor, but now instead of accidentally falling in to B-movie cheese it revels in it, all the while delivering terrible acting and over-the-top blood and gore. The resulting mess of a movie is a manic trip into a nightmare, told with a wink and a smile and a friendly jab in the ribs. It's not the horror classic that the first is, but as a great non-sequitor and a bloody bucket of laughs it certainly holds its own.

7 out of 10.

Army of Darkness: The Medieval Dead (1992)

The Evil Dead trilogy is unique in that its films only barely attempt to maintain any consistency. Much like the second film, this third abandons its predecessor's tale, retells it differently, and goes on from what is essentially a new starting point. Here the last survivor of the first and second finds himself in medieval times, once again being called upon to fight undead demons. A big difference here compared to previous films is that the hero is largely on the offensive, exhausted and utterly pissed that no matter how many hellbeasts he destroys they just won't leave him alone. A bigger difference is that this film eschews all semblance of horror seen in the previous films, instead becoming an over-the-top action-comedy. The result is a frequently hilarious, endlessly quotable romp that is appropriately lacking in story and acting, while pouring everything it has into showcasing hero's cynical charisma. It's not nearly as violent or foul as the previous films nor is it as inventive, but taken for what it is, a B-movie trip through a haunted dark ages, there's a lot of fun to be had.

7 out of 10.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Princess Mononoke (1997)

Also known as Mononoke-hime.
Hayao Miyazaki darkest, most mature piece is also one of his very best. Framing the struggle between human progress and its adverse effect on nature as a war between the animals of a forest and a band of industrious outcasts fighting for their freedom, the story here offers no clear answers, no obvious morality, and no villain. Instead it's about shades of grey, where neither side is entirely right, and both fronts have a clear right to the others' stake. It's complicated and difficult, yet exciting and magical. Miyazaki paints his opus with impossibly massive landscapes and beautifully framed vistas, filled with bizarre and wonderful creatures, some quirky and some intimidating, all brought to life with painstaking detail. Every frame of it is pulled together and solidly personified with an incredible, sweeping music score. There aren't many filmmakers out there who can present something so delicately epic, and so deeply intimate. It feels personal and grand, urgent and sure-handed. From an artist whose every work is a thing of incredible beauty, this is a masterpiece.

10 out of 10.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Porco Rosso (1992)

Also known as Kurenai no buta.
Quietly understated, full of gentle grace and starring a group of pleasantly complex characters, this film manages the hat trick of being a true kids' film meant for adults. Taking place in the Mediterranean between World Wars, this story of a grumpy pilot cursed to live in the form of a talking, smoking, complaining pig strikes all the right notes. There is never a forced moment, it is neither condescending nor disrespectful of its audience. It is an easy, relaxed movie, filled with the wonder of the open skies and yet firmly grounded in the calm demeanor of the chain-smoking hero. It's also quite touching, subtly lamenting on the melancholy and stubbornness of middle-age, and times long gone. While this may be an animated film, filled with bright colors and happy, energetic people, any kids in the audience will likely find themselves restless. For the grown-ups in front of the screen, however, there's a sense of a calm hand and a knowing smile.

9 out of 10.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

Wow. What went wrong? Let's all be honest here: you shouldn't expect much from a movie based on a cartoon that was based on a series of toys. Still, somehow director Michael Bay managed to make magic happen with the first film, concocting a light romp in which giant robots beat the snot out of each other for our amusement. It was funny, exciting, quickly paced, and pleasantly inconsequential. This film, on the other hand, is a morass of terrible screenwriting on top of embarrassingly bad acting, and an air of over-inflated self importance. Even the exceptionally glossy sheen of absurdly good special effects can't overcome this half-cocked mess of gaping plot holes and horrendously irritating characters. Meanwhile the action, the one part you could hope to count on, is nothing but a few slow motion explosions splattered over a some confusing whip-pans. There are a pair of decent action sequences in here, but twenty-five minutes of awesome is not worth enduring two additional, excruciating hours of tripe. This film goes down about as easy as swallowing a cheese-grater.

3 out of 10.

Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)

Also known as Majo no takkyûbin.
Even when legendary director Hayao Miyazaki is at his least effective, his style is still quite enchanting. Here he tells the coming of age story of a young witch off on her own for the first time, learning the ropes of life's triumphs and failures. Nothing, and yet everything is charming. The most fantastic parts of its mildly supernatural plot are told without any effort, and the result is a feeling of everyday magic, of a normal grounded in the incredible. It's all framed in a summertime kind of beautiful, with lush greens, and deep ocean blues—the art here is exceptional. It does lose a bit of ground, however, as it moves into the third act. What little conflict there is feels appropriate, but the resolutions feel forced and cheap. Interesting characters are well developed, but under-used. But somehow it barely matters. Somehow it's just a few wrinkles in on a lovely package. It may not be perfect, but it is very satisfying.

8 out of 10.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

Also known as Tonari no Totoro.
Sometimes the best things really are the simplest. Here is a film that essentially doesn't have a plot and barely makes any sense whatsoever, yet is absolutely full of effortless charm and childlike wonder. At every turn this movie seeks to delight and tickle the kid in everyone. And yet, this may not be for all audiences—the simplicity is both its greatest strength for many, but its greatest weakness for others. This is a very basic story: two kid sisters and their father move into a house next to a forest that may be haunted by very friendly, extremely adorable forest spirits. And that's it. That's literally the entire story. The following ninety minutes are merely the two sisters living their lives as children; one goes to school, they have arguments, they get in to innocent trouble. It's all extremely mellow and calming and filled with beautiful depictions of the Japanese countryside and pleasantly surreal encounters with the forest spirits. For those with a need for films with meat on their bones, this probably isn't for you. But for people who are strongly in touch with their inner child, or who are children themselves, this has a carefree innocence to it all that will bring nothing but smiles.

10 out of 10.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Castle in the Sky (1986)

Also known as Tenkû no shiro Rapyuta.
Grand and sweeping, with a score to match, this is an adventure in the tradition of the greatest of kid's films. The third movie by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki is so pure in spirit, so unpretentious, and so gleefully simple that it delights at every turn. It's frequently beautiful too, lending this tale of a mythical floating castle and the forces competing to find it a sense of summertime grandeur, from the intricately detailed mining towns to the titular castle itself. The characters within are almost all excellent as well, with the English dub of the film featuring stand out performances from James Van der Beek, and Cloris Leechman. The only real shame of it all is how derivative and predictable much of the plot is. You can see all the twists and turns coming a mile away, and while it removes none of the fun of actually seeing these things carried out, there isn't a lot of surprise to be had. Still, for the beauty, the expansive escapade, and just the sense of frivolity to it all, this one is tough to match.

8 out of 10.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Up (2009)

One of the things that makes this film so interesting is how it shows that even at their worst, the beloved animation studio Pixar can still enchant. Much like Wall-E before it, Up is strongest in the first act. It quickly spins up and creates an absolutely incredible and emotional prologue, telling a complete and remarkably touching story in the opening moments. From this expert beginning, however, things have trouble maintaining that sense of quiet dignity. As the main character, a grumpy old man fed up with life and people, decides to make a grand escape in a house held aloft by balloons, quiet subtlety gives way to high adventure, and while the emotional underpinnings reverberate throughout the remainder of the film, the beginning feels at odds with what follows. As things become more and more ridiculous, what started in one form jerks its way into a new one that doesn't feel nearly as sincere. That said, even at its lowest points the movie remains completely likeable, with the surly protagonist giving a great contrast to the kid-centric Disney heroes of old. While the heart of the film may sputter and slow, even a sloppy hand can't take away the solid smile and fantastical whimsey that is signature in every Pixar production.

7 out of 10.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

Also known as Kaze no tani no Naushika.
Set a thousand years in the future, as the last pockets of humanity fight to survive in a world covered with a vast toxic jungle, this environmentally friendly tale of a pacifist princess's struggle to defend her peaceful home from warring neighbors is crammed full of imagination and excitement, but is perhaps a bit too ambitious for it's own good. To be fair, it's based on a very large series of manga. But even with the manga's writer/artist as the film's writer/director, there are just too many things brought up that either aren't resolved well, or lack development. Characters swing from one side of the fence to another without so much as a moment to reflect on why (one key character's climactic change of heart is hilariously explained by her simply saying “I've chosen the bloody path.”), while entire civilizations are encountered, and left to ruin in moments. Yet despite the short-changing of just about everything, there is still a lot of grand adventure and heartfelt drama going on. By the end, you really feel for the princess, and her people, and the giant killer insects threatening humanity. It's a good, family-friendly time, but still one in need of either far more time, or far less ambition.

7 out of 10.

Note: This film was also released under the name Warriors of the Wind in the late 80s, however the Warriors of the Wind version of the film is heavily edited, removing just over twenty minutes from the runtime, causing significant changes to the plot. Avoid that version.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Ghostbusters (1984)

Just something about that theme song! For much of a generation, this movie is required viewing, a piece of childhood canon without fault. There's a fairly good reason for that: the film is legitimately fun, featuring outstanding chemistry between the heroic foursome and an exceptional comic performance from lead Bill Murray. The special effects were great for their time and mostly stand up to the ages, and the script itself has just enough metaphysical mumbo jumbo to support it's plot about a group of ghost-exterminating quasi-scientists. It's light, funny, and filled with fun action with iconic set pieces. Sure, there are moments that drag, and a few gags which fall flat, but it all comes back to that exceptional chemistry, and the spontaneous mayhem that ensues whenever these guys leave the house. And that song.

9 out of 10.

Ghostbusters II (1989)

Following up on a runaway hit is never easy. Picking up five years later, the Ghostbusters are finding it difficult to maintain steady work since their actions in the first film. Then along comes a river of goo and the ghost of a long-dead warlord. As much as it tries, this sequel can't quite recapture the surprise and ease that the first one brought in abundance, instead feeling a little less lively, a little more stiff. That isn't to say it's a bad film—not at all. It just isn't as good as the first. The foursome still have that same flawless chemistry, the dialogue is still wonderfully witty and Murray still brings it all together with his never-serious attitude. But the story lacks the spark that turned the first into a mega-hit, causing hits to plausibility, and diminishing the feeling of threat from the villains. Regardless, there's still a lot of fun to be had, a lot of excitement, and some great laughs. It may not be it's predecessor, but it definitely holds its own.

7 out of 10.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Maus (Graphic Novel - 1986 - 1991)

Mixing biography and autobiography, Art Spiegelman tells the story of his father Vladek's life as a Polish Jew as the Nazis ground a nation into dust, intermingled with Art's own difficulty relating to his overbearing father. Smartly, Speigelman chooses the graphic novel as his format, and draws with an effective style: all the Jews are mice, and all the Germans are cats. It's simple, it's effective, and it lets the author create his own take on the horrible reality, and not become weighed down by what has already been seen in pictures. It is incredibly potent, and crosses the line between merely being told about history, to truly relating to it. Maus doesn't just provide an incredible account of one of history's greatest crimes, but presents it in a way that is simple, personal, honest, and appropriately devastating. A masterpiece.

10 out of 10.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Fifth Element (1997)

Big budget action adventures aren't usually this whimsical, this unique, and this absolutely weird. Or polarizing, for that matter. This is the kind of film that you'll either absolutely love, or completely despise. As famed French director Luc Besson's pet project since his youth, it's lavished with incredible detail and flung at a smartly edited breakneck pace, but the story is frequently so far out of left field, the humor so bizarrely set, that audience approval is a total crapshoot. Still, this jaunty tale of doomsday prophecies, future cab drivers in flying cars, and an orange-haired semi-nudist martial artist, has so much originality it's difficult to dismiss out of hand. Ultimately, enjoyment is a calculated risk. You'll either be blissfully swept up in this eccentric bit of universe-saving, or rage-quit within the first thirty minutes.

8 out of 10.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)

Also known as Rupan sansei: Kariosutoro no shiro .
Once in a while, you come across a film that is just fun. Not deep, or dark, or tailored to any specific audience. Just fun, and breezy, and breathlessly entertaining. The first feature by legendary director Hayao Miyazaki is one such film, providing a caper of absolutely effortless whimsy, and utter charm. The story here is simple: a group of clever thieves plot to make themselves rich, but get caught up in one man's scheme to imprison a princess and control her fortune. What makes it stand out are some extremely enjoyable characters and a handful of smile-inducing action sequences. In a lot of ways it's the Japanese animation equivalent to Raiders of the Lost Ark with much of the adventure included, even though it predates the iconic film by at least two years. This is simply a wonderful, completely enjoyable film, without pretension, without any sort of edginess. Just pure entertainment, simple as it can be.

9 out of 10.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Terminator Salvation (2009)

Everyone who has followed the series thus far has been waiting for this. Up to this point, everything Terminator has been about preventing Judgment Day, the nuclear apocalypse set off by rogue computer Skynet, who would later go on to send robots back in time to assassinate the future leader of the resistance. Now Judgment Day has passed, the world is a blasted nuclear hellscape, and the surviving humans struggle against a ruthless robot army. Sure sounds exciting, doesn't it? In truth, it's quite bland. While the film has an inexhaustible special effects budget, and more explosions per minute than even the most accident-prone fireworks factory, the story, the characters, and sadly even the action consistently fail to impress. What could have been an interesting reset for the series instead inexplicably skips the early part and dives straight into the middle chapter, with the resistance up and running, and Connor already positioned to be the anti-robot messiah. There's no character struggle, and surprisingly little humanity given the series's themes so far. It jettisons almost everything fans have come to care about and fills in the blanks with bigger, more opaque blanks. And yet, there's still the nuggets here and there, where even the most jaded observer gets curious, or is wowed by a great effect or explosion. It's at these points, and only these points, where the film has a purpose. See it to munch on popcorn, turn your brain off, and watch the white noise. Do not see it because you care about the franchise.

4 out of 10.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Street Fighter (Live Action - 1994)

Whether they intended to or not, the creators of this film managed to make one hell of a B-movie. Labeling itself as a martial arts epic was probably the first mistake, but this videogame-based flick drips unique style and kitch in quantities that should be toxic. And it does so almost completely by mistake. Watching martial arts star and professional blowhard Jean Claude Van-Damme present every bit of acting acumen he has, and seeing it completely and hilariously marginalized against the simple grace and perfectly self-mocking arrogance of the great Raul Julia is truly cinematic fodder for excellence. In fact, Raul Julia's (sadly final) performance as dictator M. Bison may have been one of the finest B-movie performances out there. Julia drips 90s silliness, overblown self-importance, and even a very slight sense of good humored menace with so little effort that it's a shame this isn't a better film. Or even a good one. No, this is a terrible film with delusions of grandeur. But still, with as much good-natured hilarity on display, it's hard not to recommend a film that failed its way to watchability as well as this one has.

4 out of 10.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Star Trek (2009)

Full disclosure: I am not a Trek fan. I never have been. While I have no real ill will toward the series, I've always found it a bit too sterile, a bit too preachy, a bit too mellow for my tastes. Too much science, not enough fiction. This film is a different beast, however. One with verve and spirit, with pure excitement and a sense of humor. It's good natured, and just plain fun. It's Star Trek for the rest of us. Director J.J. Abrams takes what we all know about the old crew, and starts again from scratch, crafting a pure popcorn munching good time. It isn't weighed down by flimsy morality, and though it never dips into the truly weird it definitely keeps up a spirit of adventure. It's one amazing set piece after another, populated by likable characters doing interesting things. The story itself is perhaps a bit convoluted (though extremely clever with regard to the old canon), and the effects a bit too shiny, but when there's this much great fun going on, it's hard to find too much fault.

8 out of 10.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Robocop (1987)

All things considered, this film shouldn't be anything more than a dated popcorn muncher. But there's something here, a sharp satirical edge and a total reckless abandon, that not only keeps it afloat, but somehow makes something just short of transcendent. Make no mistake, this is still completely, utterly an 80s action relic, but it's one with an endearing quality that manages to both embrace its obsolescence while it makes that same into a strength. While the cops of Detroit wrap their minds and guns around a cinematically convenient endless crimewave, the corporate-funded cyber cop fights his war against corporate America with a strong anti-drug, pro-violence attitude that is quintessentially 80s. It's fun stuff, packed with big explosions, gruesome violence, and a genuinely bizarre sense of mocking humor. While some of the special effects don't stand up, and the vision of the now-retro future is laughable at best, there's a nugget of innocence packed in here that feels refreshing even after all these years.

8 out of 10.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Kung Pow: Enter the Fist (2002)

What makes reviewing a film like this difficult is how subjective humor is. Suffice it to say that if you find “stupid” humor to be funny, along the lines of Kentucky Fried Movie or Harold and Kumar, then there's a very good chance that this film will make you laugh your way into a coma. Fans of Woody Allen's What's Up, Tiger Lily? may also want to check this out. Likewise, if you are a fan of illegal substances, boy have I got a film for you! Yet on the other hand, if humor has to make sense to illicit a laugh from you, if amusement only comes from broad setups and well-timed punchlines, if films have to actually be good in order to be funny, then you're more likely to turn this film off 10 minutes in and wonder about the mental state of anyone caught with this in their DVD collection. This is a stupid movie. A very, very stupid movie. But if you're in tune with its offerings of poor re-edits and re-dubs of an bad kung-fu flick from the 70s, you'll be hard pressed not to laugh yourself sore.

8 out of 10.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Arrested Development (TV Series 2003 - 2006)

Rightfully hailed as one of the best and most under appreciated sitcoms of the decade, Arrested Development is, like Firefly before it, yet another brilliant show canceled by Fox. At least this one made it three seasons before the ax fell. To be fair, it's the kind of show that takes a few tries to really sink its hooks into you, and the sense of humor on display is a bit off the mainstream, but anyone with a taste for strong, ensemble-driven storylines featuring some brutally funny banter and situations owes it to themselves to see this show. The program follows the Bluths, an extraordinarily dysfunctional family whose land developer patron is unexpectedly carted off to federal prison leaving the youngest son in charge of the company and his family's finances. In-fighting ensues. It isn't your standard sitcom by any stretch, but the show succeeds brilliantly with its near-constant barrage of smart, deadpan laughs, hysterically awkward moments, and longterm setups. The setups deserve special mention in particular, as some situations presented as early as the second episode don't see a payoff until entire seasons later, and every one of them is an absolute home run—it's extremely rewarding for those who stick with it. Similarly, the cast is completely perfect for the material in every way possible, including a raft of surprising cameos in fantastically weird places. It's simple: if you are a fan of smart comedy with exceptional timing and acting, don't mind a little awkward with your hilarious, and aren't prone to walk away from something if it doesn't entertain you in the first few seconds, you owe it to yourself to see this. It really was one of the best shows in the last decade.

10 out of 10.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Observe and Report (2009)

Anyone going into this film expecting yet another Seth Rogen raunchy comedy is in for a rude awakening. Likewise, anyone going in for the more sick and twisted side of the film will also be left wanting. You have to wonder exactly what kind of film writer-director Jody Hill set out to make. It starts out innocent enough for the genre, as Seth Rogen's foulmouthed, bipolar, gun-obsessed rent-a-cop decides to make to make it his mission to track down a serial flasher terrorizing a shopping mall. But instead of leaving things at surface-level shenanigans and predictable laughs, it instead dives further and further down the rabbit hole of Rogen's self-delusion. Except the comedy gives way to an uneasy and unsure drama and by the end the whole thing is just creepy. It evolves from 40-Year-Old Virgin into Taxi Driver. There's no denying that it's a brave decision but the end result is extraordinarily uneven, featuring left-field joke setups that don't fit into the drama, and dramatic choices that don't work with the comedy. The real shame of it is that Rogen does show some decent acting chops here. In the hands of a more certain director with a more balanced script, this film could have explored some genuinely interesting places, but what's on hand is unfortunately just as choppy as it's lead's mental state.

5 out of 10.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008)

So that happened. It's difficult to determine where to start on this one; I mean, it's a musical about a repo man collecting organs as payment. Think along the lines of Sweeny Todd, but more gruesome, trading in period gothic for future industrial gothic, where the music settles between terrible and neutral. There's an air of cult all over the film, from the casting to the generally emo and screamo style music, to the bloody, yet-comically fake, gore. And it's clear that the producers knew where it was headed as well, with some obscure casting decisions featuring faces you would never have heard of unless you weren't already deep down the rabbit hole. The shame here is that most of them are not very good singers, or are at least not properly equipped to try their hand at the styles of music being thrown at them. Not that it matters with such inconsistent quality in the composition. Strictly as a film, then, it's a frustrating mess. Maybe with the right company and the right mindset there is some energy and verve to be gleaned—there certainly seems to be a feeling of “almost!” throughout—but without the right mental state this whole damn thing will probably just make most people walk away.

3 out of 10.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

Murder and mayhem go toe-to-toe with the fastest mouth in Orange County in Lethal Weapon scribe Shane Black's directorial debut. There's a surprising verve and hilarious amount of chaos swirling around in this film, most of it thanks to legendary motormouth and leading man Robert Downey Jr. Simply put, every time the troubled actor opens his trap, comic gold spills out. Helping to keep the energy up is some great chemistry with costars Val Kilmer and Michelle Monaghan. The story itself is a mish-mash of largely-standard film-noir tropes centering on a few folks in and around the movie business trying to solve a mysterious murder. For the most part the plot is fairly blasé, but smart writing and the self-knowing wit of everyone involved let it slowly become a smart deconstruction of other films in the genre. To say much more would be to say too much, but it's a fairly safe bet that anyone who likes their humor dark with a side of dirty will have a ball with this.

9 out of 10.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Coraline (2009)

There’s just something about a well done kid’s film. The very best of them are like so many childhood memories: a little bittersweet, a little funny, a little strange, and a little scary. Coraline is all of these, wrapped in an absolutely gorgeous hand-animated package done frame for frame by the talented Henry Selick, creator and animator of The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. Here, Selick’s awkwardly gothic visuals find a kindred spirit in the work of author Neal Gaiman, weaving this tale of alternate realities and negligent parents into a dark fantasy filled with charm and fright in equal measure. There’s a spirit of childlike innocence running throughout, but the darker threads are what take the fore and it’s a film that is all the better for it, giving the whole a nuance and impression of the most creative of bad dreams. Helping it all along is some extremely capable voice work, including an exceptional performance by Dakota Fanning as the titular lead. The few drawbacks to the films approach are almost all to do with whether or not the content might be too creepy for children, as while the film may only be rated PG, the atmosphere speaks to an older audience. At it’s core though, it’s an hour and a half of breathtaking visuals and exceptional creativity.

9 out of 10.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Watchmen (2009)

When adapting one of the most important graphic novels in existence to the screen, the questions that come to the fore are usually ones of accuracy and suitability for cinema. One ultimately wonders with this movie just how much adapting occurred when translating the original work to film. It's accurate almost to a fault, presenting a deeply, darkly dense tome of a film filled with unlikable but powerful crimefighters, all fighting against their own issues while trying to unravel the mystery surrounding the murder of a retired "hero". Make no mistake, there are moments in the film that soar, but even at two and a half hours of wall-to-wall plot and exposition it still may come off to some viewers as impenetrable, if still interesting. In many ways, it's a film made for the existing Watchmen fans more than the casual moviegoer—it is uncompromising, brutal, and at times bafflingly complicated. But it's also exciting, refreshingly new, and visually striking. In among the abundant nudity and stomach churning violence lies a story whose light was only mildly dimmed by the transplant. Ultimately, the failures of the film seem to lie not in the craft of the players on and behind the camera, but in the impossibility of putting something so potent and deep into a new format. Watchmen, as a graphic novel, has a limitless scope carefully exploited to take full advantage of the drawn picture and written word. The film then, is mostly very well made and the product of obvious devotion to the source, however it too often tries to find its footing in a product that was never meant to be seen in motion.

8 out of 10.

Note: Of the two versions available as of July 2009, the Director's Cut is definitely the one to see. It manages to fix the majority of the sticking points of the theatrical cut, and though it adds a few new complatints the result is still definitely a net win and a smoother experience in almost every way. Just be prepared for the full three hour runtime.

Watchmen (Graphic Novel - 1987)

For better or worse, Watchmen changed the “comic book” forever. Alan Moore's magnum opus of so-called super heroes is less of a cheerful yarn telling tall tales of daring and justice and incredible power, but of the aftermath and smoldering ruin of costumed avengers past their prime and relevance, hidden among a society that has had them outlawed. Set in an alternate version of 1985, the story begins as a retired hero is mysteriously murdered, and the demons of a man who lived above the law are unearthed, causing ripples in a community of former crime fighters and villains. What sets it apart is how it is less about costumes and pageantry, but about a series of fundamentally broken individuals who were once driven to battle the dregs of society for one reason or another. It asks what real, completely fallible and often reprehensible human beings would do with near limitless power in a company of peers. The story itself takes a backseat to deep, exhaustive character study, giving each protagonist their due and sense of place; the brutal sociopath Rorschach is given the same level of attention as the godlike, apathetic Dr. Manhattan. It's this level of character depth and darkness, this willingness to show heroic archetypes as unlikable, miserable, depressed, depraved, yet utterly fascinating humans that led Watchmen to its place in history. One can argue with the wisdom of dragging once kid-friendly works into maturity, however at the same time the sheer level of audacity and craft at work in this seminal tome is absolutely undeniable.

10 out of 10.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Band of Brothers (TV Series - 2001)

Yes, war is hell. But it takes a lot more than two hours to explain why war is hell. Conceived of in the aftermath of the production of the iconic war film Saving Private Ryan, and serving as an adaptation of the Steven Ambrose biography “Band of Brothers”, this series tells the true story of Easy Company, a group of paratroopers known as much for their unbelievable bravery as for their unimaginable losses. Each episode is written and presented as a tribute to these men, showing as best as cinema can provide the triumphs and the failures, the beauty and the warts, of Easy Company's incredible trip through the war. Absolutely no expense is spared in creating as authentic a presentation as possible. Hundreds of extras in authentic costumes march and fight and drink and deal with their own realities of the war. Forests detonate with mortar fire and buildings explode into the countryside with genuinely frightening realism during the frequent battle scenes. And the cherry-picked cast is perfect down to the last man, giving each soldier their story and their struggle. And as each of its ten episodes opens, you hear it in interviews from the real men who the series is based on, who traded gunfire behind enemy lines on D-Day, who fought in Operation: Market Garden, and dug in during the Battle of the Bulge. It's heartbreaking and painful just as it is uplifting and enlightening, dramatic and intense, and for such a tremendous production as the series is, there is knowledge that watching it is only a fraction of the full tale. War is hell, and this provides some idea why.

10 out of 10.

The Room (2003)

There is just no way a person can stay quiet during this movie—it is so full of bad choices, awful acting, horrid writing, and repetitive dialogue that you'll be screaming in frustration before the end of the second scene. When even the several sex scenes fail to keep your interest, you know the rest will be torture. By intention, it was made as a deep, searing drama exploring the dark underbelly of a relationship gone sour. It was rightly panned at every festival and screening it was presented to. Director, and hilariously oblivious windbag, Tommy Wiseau, in perhaps the only reasonable decision made regarding the production, then opted to re-brand the same film as a dark comedy. Good luck with that, Tommy. If you've got a group of friends and a ready pile of your favorite decision-impairing substance, there may be some merit to viewing this catastrophe. If you're running solo, avoid it like cancer.

1 out of 10.

Idiocracy (2006)

Once upon a long time ago, writer/director Mike Judge dealt a blow for the common cubicle dweller with Office Space. Now he's back, this time telling the sci-fi tale of an extremely average joe flung into a future populated by the offspring of dozens of generations of society's lowest, dumbest, horniest common denominator. Much like the flawed but smartly wry Office Space, Idiocracy starts off strong with likable characters and some great laughs, but also like its forbear it becomes considerably less entertaining as soon as it decides to develop a plot. As pure satire it still manages to stay witty and clever throughout, but the funny bits become too rare to sustain more than passing interest. It really is a shame, as the first half hints at something truly special, and manages to present moments of sheer stupidity that have already become iconic. Too bad that pesky plot had to get in the way.

5 out of 10.

The Happening (2008)

Were he not already signed to another picture before the release of this film, it is perfectly reasonable to think that this movie would have ended director M. Night Shyamalan's career. The man who brought us The Sixth Sense and Signs is absolutely at the bottom of his game here. It starts off well enough, as people mysteriously stop in their tracks and start killing themselves en masse for no reason, while school teacher Mark Wahlberg leads a group of “survivors” on a tour of New England to escape the chaos. Things degenerate from tepid to nauseating in quick order from there. The rest is pointlessly graphic violence shoehorned into a script that is, at worst, rated PG and carried out by a cast with the enthusiasm of someone who lost a bet. And don't even get me started on the whole end sequence. This director was once the prodigal child of cinema, someone to look out for. Yet the more he does, the worse his films become. Maybe the mass suicides in this movie is him screaming out, wanting to quit the biz. More likely they're symptoms of a man who still has good ideas, but no longer has any notion of how to turn them into a functioning film.

3 out of 10.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Taken (2009)

For all of Liam Neeson's considerable acting talent, for the cinematic history he's made as a Jedi, a Batman villain, an Irish revolutionary, and Oscar Schindler himself, he just can't seem to pull off an American accent. Or smile, for that matter. Luckily, for this tale of a father on the rampage to retrieve his kidnapped daughter, he has little time to speak and almost no reason to smile. All told, this is very much a by-the-numbers action thriller, but there's a sense of uncomfortable awkwardness both in Neeson's performance, and the director Pierre Morrel's apparent inexperience in the big chair. The result is something far more spastic, and far less dramatic, than necessary. You're rarely, if ever, given the chance to buy in to the events going on. This holds true to the action as well, which frequently uses obnoxiously disorganized editing in place of actual choreography. Still, there's a nugget of fun to be had in its time—the situation presented is appropriately horrifying with or without the actor's help selling it, and when Neeson has to appear threatening and moody, well, history shows us he's quite good at that. The result is a film with a few decent high points among a mostly droning, passive spectacle. It'll scratch an itch, but it's quite forgettable.

5 out of 10.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

WALL·E (2008)

At points charming, thoughtful, and uplifting, WALL-E is that rare beast: a Disney film with a message. Earth is in ruins, humanity fled to the cosmos, and left behind to clean up the mess is a single, lonely robot, eternally doing its duty to clean up our mess. And the rest goes from there. It's a simple premise and, for the first forty minutes or so, carried with a sense of grace and presentation unusual in a the genre. The desolate world and its inhabitant are rendered with a sense of melancholy and sympathy that is simply beautiful to behold. This pitch-perfect storytelling doesn't last, however, and though the turn for the worse doesn't make a good film bad, it does take away a considerable amount of its character. Yet the movie going forward still has its message, and a few others too, including some that a few in the audience might even take offense to. But there's a sense of risk and verve in this work that feels truly honest, and frank, and even sometimes important. At its worst, it's a great film. For forty minutes though, it's a brilliant one.

9 out of 10.